Lila's Transformation

Havana's hold on its old inhabitants makes for great parody

The key to great parody is that it hits home in contemporary society. Although Cuban playwright Rolando Ferrer's play Lila, la Mariposa (Lila, the Butterfly) was meant to be a criticism of Havana and the 1950s when it was first written back in 1954, Teatro Avante's rendition continues the tradition with an added twist: This parody of the nostalgia of, and for, that era is so well played out and so close to being over the top, it's easy to relate to present-day exile nostalgia. Teatro Avante has given us a wildly complex Lila (played by Lilliam Vega), a versatile cast, and an array of music ranging from mambo to pop. The result is a vivid transformation of the old play and of Lila. But what has she become in this version? Is Lila a butterfly, or a moth fluttering around the dimming bulb of '50s family values? Is she a cocoon, dead and enshrined in her own character flaws? Is she a showgirl turned vamp or an unrelenting selfish vampire of a mother? She is all that and more. And if you expect to see some slight poking fun at the nostalgia for that era, you'll be shocked: Lila is ribald, campy, daring, and ultimately hilarious.The play opens with a funeral scene. Lila is shrouded in white lace, lying toward the back of the stage and a little off center to the right. The cast stands around her, with two figures (Clarissa Rodriguez and Maria Hernandez) dressed in black robes representing the harbingers of death. A long-time admirer of Lila, Juan Alberto (Jorge Hernandez), croons, "It's been 25 years since I wrote the book of poems for you. Lila, wings of silk. The body of a rose." Amid the tears and wailing, the rest of the cast sings: "She suffered so much/She worked like a slave/Supporting her son and her sister-in-law." Despite the grave subject matter, the funeral scene, and the general blubbering and weeping, we immediately get the idea that Lila, the Mariposa will not be confused with Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba. The grieving is accompanied first by solemn piano music, but by the time they carry Lila out, it has changed to an upbeat pop bolero. A combination musical, parody, and cabaret, Lila's thin plot line (in short a neurotic, overprotective mother obsessed with keeping her son at home) makes room for this flexible cast to weave layers of irony and music around a central theme. It borders on the absurd while never ceasing to be quirky and funny.

The script contains some of the most lyrical and poetic language in Cuban drama and creates a balance with the absurd humor. Fortunately Marian Prio Odio has done an excellent translation, and Lila is performed with his English supertitles. The play has been adapted by contemporary Cuban playwright Raquel Carrio, who added some lines from Cuban writer José Triana's work La Noche de los Asesinos (The Night of the Assassins), a varied musical score, and a final cabaret scene.

Cubans don't have a corner on the oedipal market, but they do have their own flavor. A parody of the woman of the house (cultured, elegant, and in control), Lila is quick to show her horns. We soon find out she is given to fainting spells, is apt to swoon in the face of injustice (for instance her almost-grown son Marino's desire to go outside for fresh air), and if needed, she will grind her high heel into the enemy's eye. For all the pretense and love she shows her sister-in-law, Hortensia (Sandra Rosa), when the woman stands up to Lila and pleads with her to let Marino have some freedom, Lila goes ballistic.

Actress Lilliam Vega says she modeled Lila in part after Tennessee Williams' Blanche DuBois and García Lorca's female characters. Although Lila is uniquely Lila, one can see Blanche through the expensive china and fluttering Spanish fans -- the refined surface and the gritty, desperate interior. In the shaping of Lila, we also see García Lorca's influence. Like the mother in The House of Bernarda Alba, a blurry line exists between being reserved and being isolated, strong willed and violent. Abandoned by Marino's father, who left her for the sea, Lila runs a dressmaking shop out of her decaying mansion. The sea is a constant menace that threatens to flood her house and take away her son.

Vega is a master at using her face to tell part of the saga. Half of the play's parody takes place in her eyes. In the middle of a long-suffering, gracious speech to Marino, her eyes suddenly jerk toward the audience, with all the melodrama of one of Rudolf Valentino's women tied to the train tracks. It's as if her eyes have a conspiracy against her words, and the juxtaposition is hilarious. No matter how elegant she is, there is always something about her appearance that is slightly amiss -- mussed up hair, a little too much makeup. This reinforces the distrust we have of her as a reliable, stable character.

As Lila desperately calls for Marino (which she often does) and then finally pulls him to her bosom, the dark humor and sexual undertones turn campy. Marino (Hugo Garcia) is a grown man dressed in a little boy's sailor outfit. Garcia capitalizes on the absurdity of his mother's attachment to him by playing his character as dorky and dumb. Despite the fact that his life is totally ruined and his chances for a healthy productive adulthood are slim, Marino's agitation at his predicament is half-hearted. Eagerly running after his childhood sweetheart (Clarissa Rodriguez) or the captain (Jorge Hernandez) he looks up to, he is like a little puppy -- cute but not too smart, which adds to the absurdity of Lila's obsession.

The set design by Leandro Soto is essential to the movement of the play. For the most part, the stage is organized with a balance to the left and right, enhancing Lila's role as butterfly and attention grabber as she flits from one situation and person to another, demanding the spotlight. The costumes (also by Soto) dramatize and heighten the parody of the actors. The perfect example is in José Patricio's role as a little girl. Lila's sister-in-law, who supervises a dress shop, receives a visit from a nosy, uptight neighbor (Lourdes Simon) and her obnoxious little angel (Patricio). Having a man play this snotty brat is brilliant. Patricio, a physically big man, plays the role with a strong physicality and bawdiness. At one point he gooses Lila; when his mother is not looking, he's always up to something unladylike. This, in combination with his hairy legs, horsehair wig, and frilly baby-doll dress, is sensationally funny. Like Vega, Patricio also is a master of incredible facial expressions. His menacing smile and overdone gestures turn the little darling into a dark-humored caricature.

Clarissa Rodriguez and Maria Hernandez, like the chorus in ancient Greek tragedies, sometimes step outside the drama and narrate to the audience. They both play various roles, from submissive seamstresses in starched dresses with pinafores to sassy showgirls, and they do it well, lending a continuity to the action and a mood to the play overall.

The last scene consists of a present-day cabaret, the kind you might find in Havana or in Miami on Calle Ocho. There we see Marino gyrating in black leather pants with the two showgirls, and Lila herself as a jaded and wizened cabaret mistress. As the theater audience is transformed into cabaretgoers, Lila flirts with husbands and jokes with wives, nodding and winking knowingly at the rest of the audience. Although the transition to this is a bit shaky, it is a successful parody of the present-day cabaret and yet another window through which to view Lila's myriad personalities.

The drama crescendos when Marino is offered the opportunity to work at sea. But the ending is intentionally ambiguous. Will the son break away from his mother, from that powerful emotion that is nostalgia? It is an appropriate parallel to exile life and its unanswered questions.

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